Regulators need lawmakers’ help in pollution fight

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It’s becoming increasingly evident that the spread of GenX into the water supply from the Chemours plant is an air-pollution problem too.

There are, in fact, several ways that the chemical used in producing Teflon and other nonstick coatings has spread into the water supply of much of this region. While state regulators initially targeted wastewater and runoff from the plant, they now understand that large quantities of GenX are escaping into the air from the chemical plant on the Cumberland-Bladen county line.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said last week that rainwater tests conducted in late February and early March found GenX as far as seven miles away from the plant at levels from 45 to 810 parts per trillion. The state’s health goal for drinking water is 140 parts per trillion. State regulators have also noted that Chemours’ estimates of air emissions have steadily increased as the DEQ’s investigation of the pollution has continued.

There are more test results awaited — including fish from the Cape Fear River and in local lakes — and there need to be tests on fruits, vegetables and meats raised in the plant’s vicinity.

But there is a substantial volume of research already done and the state appears to be taking a firmer hand with the chemical giant — a welcome move. Last week, the DEQ gave Chemours three weeks to show that it can prevent its air emissions of GenX from polluting groundwater and told the company that it will modify the terms of its air quality permit.

“Chemours must show to DEQ’s satisfaction that they can operate without further contamination of groundwater or we will prohibit all GenX air emissions,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said. The company has until April 27 to respond and demonstrate that its emissions don’t contribute to groundwater violations. Failure to do that will result in the state prohibiting emissions of GenX.

Given the most recent test results showing the GenX content of rainwater collected around the company’s Fayetteville Works, it’s hard to see how the company will avoid the difficult sanctions.

Chemours, however, says it has made “unprecedented” efforts to clean up the plant site, including digging up and disposing of contaminated soil. It has also committed to install activated carbon adsorption systems to control emissions and will follow that with the installation of a thermal oxidizer that will prevent “at least 99.99 percent” of GenX emissions.

Those are positive steps, but it’s a little like closing the barn doors after multiple generations of horses have run out of the barn and off of the farm. It appears that water and air pollution from the plant continued for decades until they were discovered by researchers last year. Digging up contaminated soil at the plant isn’t going to clean up the huge plumes of GenX and other pollutants that are in the groundwater for miles around the plant, nor will stopping the outfall of GenX into the river offset whatever health effects the pollution has had on generations of residents around the plant and downstream from it who have been drinking tainted water.

While the DEQ’s response to this pollution emergency has been exemplary, it’s also been hampered severely by years of budget cutting that have left the agency badly understaffed and incapable of performing all the tests needed to swiftly determine the extent of the problem. And we haven’t even begun to talk about remediation efforts that will insure clean water and safe crops in the future.

Earlier this year, the state Senate walked away from a House-passed measure that would have begun restoring DEQ’s ability to determine the full scope of the pollution and to better respond. That was nothing less than a sellout of the health and safety of the lawmakers’ constituents. We hope that when legislators return to the General Assembly in May for their short session, they’ll reverse that shameful inaction and give the DEQ the tools it needs.